Why did Theresa May take herself and the Westminster press corps on a trip to Florence when she could perfectly well have delivered the same Brexit speech while remaining in the comfort of Downing Street or in the familiar surroundings of the House of Commons? Members of the press corps, oddly ungrateful for an Italian dining opportunity in a great city, were asking that question throughout Friday. But the answer to it emerged in the balance of arguments — soothing assurances versus declarations of firm purpose — that shaped the prime minister’s outline of the kind of new relationship she hoped Britain would enjoy with the European Union after Brexit. She wanted a pro-European case for Brexit. And a Florence background, together with references to the beauties of the Rennaissance, was supporting evidence that the speech was pro-European.
Much of what she said was bent on removing any doubt that Britain would be leaving the EU — a doubt that apparently still shapes some thinking in Brussels and the British media. The British people had made a choice in the referendum, she said, between the “pooling of sovereignty” inside Europe and the power of “domestic democratic control” outside it, and they had plainly chosen the latter. This was delicately phrased to avoid the appearance of condescending to the continent — there were no criticisms of Europe’s democratic deficit — but the result was not a momentary or superficial decision. It reflected the historical fact, she argued, that throughout its membership, the United Kingdom had “never felt totally at home” in the EU, which itself had never impressed the Brits, unlike other EU member-states, as “an integral part of our national story.” So we are leaving and will make our own way in the world as a global free-trading nation.
On the other hand, leaving the EU does not mean that Britain is no longer a proud member of the family of European nations, or that we are turning our backs on Europe, or that we want the EU to fail. Quite the contrary. The success of the EU, she said, is a profound U.K. national interest. She even hinted that the U.K.’s absence would make things easier in some ways. She doesn’t want Britain to “stand in the way” of the reform of EU institutions that President Junker had launched last week — as the Brits would undoubtedly have done inside the EU given that the reforms aim to tighten its corset of Brussels regulations. Let Europe be Europe and Britain be Britain was her refrain in a relationship almost more cooperative than competitive.
This was probably the right mood music for Florence (though, oddly, she spoke against a dull neutral background proclaiming the deadly pietistic slogan “Shared History, Shared Challenges, Shared Future” rather than anything interestingly Italianate). But did May’s speech go beyond mood music to offer serious concessions to Brussels that would compromise her apparent firmness on leaving? A minority of internet Euroskeptics (including, however, Nigel Farage) fear so, and some intransigent Remainers think so happily or at least pretend to. Has she got the balance right?
The firmness consists in three things: Britain’s leaving the single market, leaving the customs union, and doing both by March 29, 2019. The single market and the customs union (together with the jurisdiction of EU courts) constitute the economic core of the EU; Britain’s departure from them would therefore be a giant’s step toward economic independence. In May’s words:
We will no longer sit at the European Council table or in the Council of Ministers, and we will no longer have Members of the European Parliament. Our relations with countries outside the EU can be developed in new ways, including through our own trade negotiations, because we will no longer be an EU country, and we will no longer directly benefit from the EU’s future trade negotiations.
May might have added that if Britain is legally outside of the EU by the end of March 2019, it will be very difficult for some future Labour government run by Remainers to get back in. By 2021, Europe is likely to have moved in the direction of a more integrated “federalist” EU that would be even less acceptable to U.K. opinion than the one rejected in 2016. So far, so good.
Then, however, the uncertainties crowd in. Some are undoubtedly open to finessing. Though Dublin and Brussels are mischievously entertained by raising as many difficulties as possible for London over the EU–U.K. economic border that Brexit would create between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the Brits have good reason to believe it can be handled without creating free movement for either contraband or terrorists. Britain and Ireland enjoyed a common travel area between the birth of the Irish Free State and the entry of both states into the EU. It worked well — as least as well as the Anglo-French channel arrangements of recent years. Though there may be several smuggling routes across any new border within Ireland, those terrorists who make it to Dublin will find that getting from there to mainland Britain limits them to three airports and as many shipping ports. All will be fiercely watched. And Dublin will be as eager as London to prevent their use as transit means for bad guys. (Finally, though this is not a point that Mrs. May can make, the fact that both Britain and Ireland have been EU member-states for the past 40 year undoubtedly facilitated Irish terrorism in Britain without being regarded as a count against the EU.) Ultimately, the border problem is a technical one that both governments will cooperate in solving.
But more serious problems are raised by how to resolve disputes over different regulations, how much money the Brits should pay for the privilege of leaving (or, more accurately, for getting a better free-trade agreement after leaving than might otherwise be available), and what should be the timing of any agreement of the period of implementation between Britain’s leaving the EU legally and finally replacing EU law, rules, and practices with its own. In all these cases there are technical problems, but the real difficulties are political.
May began by pointing out that neither the U.K. nor the EU could have the other’s courts deciding the legal rights of its citizens. Both must therefore agree on a dispute-resolution mechanism. True enough. But they have not laid down what that might be. It remains uncertain, and if no such mechanism is agreed by February 2019, the EU might seek to keep the European Court of Justice as the court of last resort.
Another difficulty: Leaks from London suggested that the Brits would offer to pay something like 18 billion pounds as an exit bill, but the prime minister gave no specific figure, instead saying the words that the EU wanted to hear that “the U.K. will honor commitments we have made during the period of our membership.” That is one of those offers that avoids a dispute today at the cost of a dispute down the road when the stakes may be higher and British bargaining power weaker. It promises trouble. And though leaks had again suggested that the transitional “period of implementation” (when the EU rules would continue to apply to Britain) would be two years, it mutated in the speech to “about two years.” That doesn’t seem a major change — and it probably represents an attempt to reconcile Cabinet divisions. But it gives both the EU and the weaker sisters in the U.K. Cabinet and civil service an incentive to delay a final settlement and to offer concessions to bring it about more quickly. And if Britain’s intended actual (as opposed to legal) departure from the EU is March 2021, any such drift of decisions and deadlines would bring Mrs. May perilously close to the next election in June 2022.
Taking these things together, it is possible to imagine — as the Daily Telegraph headline does — that a de facto Brexit would not occur until shortly before the 2022 election, with EU migration into the U.K. still continuing six years after the Brexit referendum vote. Mrs. May would then have to meet the voters apologizing to them for an unconscionable delay and perhaps driven to defend some kind of associate EU membership as the inevitable outcome in an unsatisfactory world.
The phrase ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ has disappeared from her vocabulary. It was not in her Florence speech, and it’s a dangerous omission.
All of the possibilities hazarded in the previous paragraphs are risks only. None may happen. But the likelihood that May will be swallowed up in such an administrative quagmire is greater than it need be because she has given herself no visible alternative to negotiating a deal with the EU. The phrase “no deal is better than a bad deal” has disappeared from her vocabulary. It was not in her Florence speech, and it’s a dangerous omission. Her predecessor, David Cameron, had to accept a bad deal because he refused to consider walking away from the EU negotiations in 2016. But since his bad deal was rejected by the voters, all sides got no deal in the end. Mrs. May should instruct the civil service to undertake serious planning for Britain to leave the EU without a deal — and therefore without an exit payment or a long “period of implementation” — and to organize British industry to compete with Europe under the rules of the World Trade Organization. She may not want that outcome, but she must demonstrate to herself and others, including EU officials, that its’s a real alternative. And if a civil servant tells her that planning this will take six years, she should quote what Margaret Thatcher actually said to a civil servant who told her that health-service reform would take as long:
“Six years! Six years! We won the Second World War in six years!” She got what she wanted. And so would Theresa May. But only if she demands it.